American Civil War: Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Battle of Spotsylvania Court House - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House was fought May 8-21, 1864, and was part of the American Civil War.

Armies & Commanders at Spotsylvania Court House:



Battle of Spotsylvania Court House - Background:

Following the bloody stalemate at the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-7, 1864), Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant elected to disengage, but unlike his predecessors, he decided to keep pressing south. Shifting bulk of the Army of the Potomac's strength to the east, he began moving around the right flank of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on the night of May 7. The next day, Grant directed Major General Gouverneur K. Warren's V Corps to capture Spotsylvania Court House, approximately 10 miles to the southeast.

Battle of Spotsylvania Court House - Sedgwick Killed:

Anticipating Grant's move, Lee rushed Major General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry and Major General Richard Anderson's First Corps to the area. Utilizing interior lines and taking advantage of Warren's tardiness, the Confederates were able to assume a position north of Spotsylvania before Union troops could arrive. Quickly building several miles of trenches, the Confederates were soon in a formidable defensive position. On May 9, as the bulk of Grant's army arrived on the scene, Major General John Sedgwick, commander of the VI Corps, was killed as he scouted the Confederate lines.

Replacing Sedgwick with Major General Horatio Wright, Grant began to develop plans for assaulting Lee's army. Forming a ragged, inverted "V," the Confederate lines were weakest near the tip in an area known as the Mule Shoe Salient. At 4:00 PM on May 10, the first Union attacks moved forward as Warren's men assaulted Anderson's corps along the left side of the Confederate position. Repulsed with around 3,000 casualties, the attack was the precursor for another assault which slammed into the east side of the Mule Shoe two hours later.

Battle of Spotsylvania Court House - Upton's Attack:

Assembling twelve regiments from the VI Corps, Colonel Emory Upton formed them in a tight assault column three wide by four deep. Striking a narrow front along the Mule Shoe, his new approach quickly breached the Confederate lines and opened a narrow but deep penetration. Battling valiantly, Upton's men were forced to withdraw when reinforcements to exploit the breach failed to arrive. Recognizing the brilliance of Upton's tactics, Grant immediately promoted him to brigadier general and began planning corps-size assault using the same approach.

Battle of Spotsylvania Court House - Assaulting the Mule Shoe:

Taking May 11 to plan and shift troops for the pending assault, Grant's army was quiet for most of the day. Misinterpreting the Union inactivity as a sign that Grant was going to attempt moving by his army, Lee removed artillery from the Mule Shoe in preparation for shifting to a new position. Shortly before dawn on May 12, Major General Winfield S. Hancock's veteran II Corps struck top of the Mule Shoe using Upton's tactics. Quickly overwhelming Major General Edward "Allegheny" Johnson's division, Hancock's men captured 4,000 prisoners along with their commander.

Rolling through the Mule Shoe, the Union advance bogged down as Brigadier General John B. Gordon shifted three brigades to block Hancock's men. Also hampered by the lack of a follow-up wave to press the attack, Hancock's troops were soon being pushed back. To regain the momentum, Grant ordered Major General Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps to attack from east. While Burnside had some initial success, his assaults were contained and defeated. Around 6:00 AM, Grant sent Wright's VI Corps into the Mule Shoe to fight on Hancock's right.

Raging through the day and into the night, fighting in the Mule Shoe surged back and forth as each side sought an advantage. With heavy casualties on both sides, the landscape was quickly reduced to a body-strewn wasteland that presaged the battlefields of World War I. Recognizing the critical nature of the situation, Lee repeatedly sought to personally lead his men forward, but was prevented from doing so by his troops who desired to preserve his safety. Some of the most intense combat occurred at an area of the salient known as the Bloody Angle where sides were sometimes reduced to hand-to-hand fighting.

As the fighting raged, Confederate troops built a defensive line across the base of the salient. Completed around 3:00 AM on May 13, Lee ordered his troops to abandon the salient and retire into the new line. Occupying the salient, Grant paused for five days as he probed east and south seeking a weak spot in the Confederate lines. Unable to find one, he sought to surprise the Confederates at the Mule Shoe line on May 18. Moving forward, Hancock's men were repulsed and Grant soon cancelled the effort. Realizing that a breakthrough would not be possible at Spotsylvania, Grant continued his trend of moving left and again slipped around Lee's army by marching south towards Guinea Station on May 20.

Battle of Spotsylvania Court House - Aftermath:

The fighting at Spotsylvania Court House cost Grant 2,725 killed, 13,416 wounded, and 2,258 captured/missing, while Lee suffered 1,467 killed, 6,235 wounded, and 5,719 captured/missing. The second contest between Grant and Lee, Spotsylvania effectively ended in a stalemate. Unable to win a decisive victory over Lee, Grant continued the Overland Campaign by pressing south. Though desiring a war-winning triumph, Grant was aware that each battle cost Lee casualties that the Confederates could not replace.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Spotsylvania Court House." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). American Civil War: Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Spotsylvania Court House." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).